Festival of Nature 2015: Roots and Soil Erosion

Festival of Nature 3D printing pen and root template Memetic Drift Emily Coyte

Seed lucky dips, 3D-printer pens, and Bill Oddie with a puffin. All in a day’s volunteering for the Festival of Nature 2015!

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_13Bristol’s Festival of Nature is the UK’s largest celebration of the natural world, and has recently spread over into Bath too. This year, I helped Kevin Smyth and Tom Denbigh from the School of Biological Sciences. Their work in Prof Claire Grierson‘s lab group looks at plant roots, especially how important they are at preventing soil erosion. This work is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Pictures are phone quality so apologies. Click any picture to enlarge. 

The stall really helped reveal what’s going under our feet in any park, garden or green space. Like the well-known tip of the iceberg, there’s often a lot going on below the surface! For the sunflowers in this rhizotron, the roots were taller than many of the kids we saw!

Are you taller than a root? Festival of Nature Emily Coyte Memetic Drift

We also had some smaller plants growing in transparent media. The bean on the left has thicker roots and very few side shoots, whereas the tomato on the right has much thinner roots but more side shoots.

Festival of Nature roots in gel Memetic Drift Emily Coyte

If you want evidence that plants do help combat soil erosion, just see below! Soil without plants (right) can be really crumbly and doesn’t hold itself together well. A slight slope and some rainfall would wash it away easily, leading to soil erosion. Soil + plants is a far more effective solution, holding itself together with ease – even without a supporting pot. One of so many reasons why we need more plants around!

Festival of Nature root hair structures Memetic Drift Emily Coyte

Are you inspired to lend a hand with increasing the plant numbers in your area? Perhaps you are curious about the medical-looking pots are behind the bowl of soil in the image above. We can help with both – it’s a seed lucky dip!

Festival of Nature seed lucky dip Memetic Drift Emily Coyte

In the lab, Kevin’s group studies roots to try and understand why plants are so effective at preventing soil erosion. To do this, they can make mutations in some plants and see if it changes the roots. The mutant plants of choice are Arabadopsis, weedy relatives of the mustard plant and perhaps the most studied plant in the world.

Looking down the microscope at the samples, you could work out which plant was the “bald” mutant (left) and which was the “werewolf” (right) compared to the normal roots in the middle. If we understand how the plant’s genetics affects their roots, perhaps in the future we could grow plants that are better at holding the soil together.

Festival of Nature roots microscope Memetic Drift Emily Coyte

There was art as well as science! You could draw your own root structure on a plant template, then one of us lucky volunteers got to use this amazing 3D-printing pen to made a “real” version of it. You could either take it home or donate it to our ever-growing wall…

Festival of Nature 3D printing pen and root template Memetic Drift Emily Coyte Festival of Nature 3D printing pen and root template Memetic Drift Emily Coyte

As a bonus, my lunch break timed nicely with Bill Oddie’s talk so I got to hear him tell a bunch of amusing anecdotes about his young life and how that led to a passion for wildlife. One of these apparently required a stuffed puffin!

Festival of Nature Bill Oddie Puffin Emily Coyte Memetic Drift

There was plenty to do at the stall, in the tent and throughout the festival. I was genuinely impressed at the range of activities and how interesting they were, something for all ages and experiences. I had a great time helping out and look forward to next year’s Festival of Nature already! It also fit in as a pretty wild indeed #30dayswild.

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